A Chicago coffee roaster founded by two restaurant workers who found themselves furloughed during the pandemic aims open a cafe later this fall in Lakeview inside the former Pastoral space. Bae Coffee Company will serve drip coffee, espresso, specialty drinks, pastries, and — eventually — food specials in a space its founders call “a little pink beacon” and what members of older generations might call peak millennial.
“Bae” is millennial speak that stands for “before all else,” and owners Alicia Zyburt and Devon Owens believe that sentiment is just as appropriate for morning coffee as it is for loved ones. The couple, who are married, owe their relationship to coffee: they met when Zyburt was Owens’s regular barista at Blue Max (now Lathrop House), a coffeeshop in suburban River Forest. Owens’s mother, who died in 2019, also provided inspiration: she could make a delicious French press and told her son that “life is too short for bad coffee.”
Though they plan to serve a variety of specialty drinks, including cordials, shrubs, espresso tonics, rose milk tea, and lattes flavored with syrups they make themselves, they are not above serving their own pumpkin spice latte, the ultimate millennial icon. “We would never shrug our shoulders at that,” Zyburt says. “We want to serve everyone on the spectrum of caffeine drinkers. Have you ever come up with a billion-dollar idea?”
Bae Coffee began in March of 2020 when Zyburt was furloughed from her job in marketing at Machine Hospitality Group (Machine, Headquarters Beercade) and Owens from his in a restaurant kitchen. “Cabin fever took hold relatively quickly,” Zyburt says. “There are only so many episodes of Boardwalk Empire.”
At first they considered a private dinner series, but that would have required going into people’s homes, something they weren’t entirely comfortable with during the pandemic. Creating a product that could be sold through the mail seemed like a safer plan, and in what Zyburt calls “a lightning strike moment,” they hit on coffee. They both found new jobs — Owens at Soul & Smoke in Evanston and Zyburt at the Boka Restaurant Group — but they decided to continue with their plan to start their own business.
While they were in the process of fundraising, an agent at the nonprofit Allies for Community Business suggested they reach out to Melissa Villanueva, owner of Brewpoint Coffee in suburban Elmhurst. Villanueva agreed to take the two aspiring coffee entrepreneurs under her wing, and in August she began training them on the roaster.
“Once we got past the hurdle of, ‘this is a very hot and scary machine that we don’t own’ and our anxieties over setting the roastery on fire, we began to think that this could be more,” Zyburt says. “You can only sell so many beans before you start selling cups.” By September, Bae Coffee had a few wholesale clients and had begun to sell beans by the bag online. And by spring, they were scouting for places to open up a cafe, where, Owens says, they could really showcase the flavor of their beans. After a lease in Edgewater fell through, Zyburt discovered that the former Pastoral location on Broadway in Lakeview was available. The beloved wine bar and cheese shop had closed in November 2019 after 15 years and the space has remained vacant since.
The millennial pink aesthetic has always been part of Bae’s marketing strategy: most coffee companies use a green or brown color scheme, so they thought pink would stand out on a store shelf. In the cafe, it will translate into clean lines, cursive signage, and lots of plants.
For now, Bae Coffee will continue to be roasted in small batches at the Elmhurst venue, though Owens desperately wants a roaster of their own in the cafe’s kitchen. “[Zyburt] says 24 months,” he says resignedly. He’d prefer three. They’re aiming for a holiday-season opening, though that might be pushed back to January. To start off, they’ll be serving pastry and baked goods from bakeries around the city, preferably female- and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)-owned, though in the future, Owens plans to start cooking, too. But only once he’s mastered the art of coffee.
“The only way to be great,” he says, “is to do it a thousand times in a row.”
Bae Coffee Company, 2945 N. Broadway, Scheduled to open late fall 2021 or early 2022